Women comprise a surprising proportion of people in youth alcohol and drug treatment services in Australia. In Victoria, for instance, one-third of clients are women.
Women in treatment have higher rates of vulnerability – such as homelessness and family disconnection – and more severe levels of substance use than males.
This disparity can be explained in part by the fact that women in youth alcohol and drug treatment also have higher rates of past sexual abuse, physical abuse, child protection involvement and self-injury.
I interviewed 26 young women in alcohol and drug treatment services in Victoria. More than half of them disclosed a history of sexual abuse and 20 spoke about cutting themselves.
Ebony had a biography typical of many of the women interviewed for my soon-to-be-published study. When asked if she had stayed at home much in her childhood, she said:
Nup, never … I’d rather live at my friends' houses … [where] I’d never get bashed or hurt in other ways … I got, er, ah … by my so-called stepdad. I was staying in the living room, in the fold-down bed, and he raped me. I was only 15.
Lisa was also sexually abused, but this was outside her family home, which also was filled with violence and neglectful parenting:
… Mum put me in after-school care and I feel that’s what caused me to go off the rails a bit. Because … it was one of the ladies' sons or something … I couldn’t tell my mum what he was doing because, well [starts crying], I felt like I was going to get in trouble or something. Yeah, he just kept … I had to go there every day. Mum sent me. Mum asked him to babysit me … he just kept making me do shit with him [sobbing].
Young people can survive significant adversity but research on resiliency shows support of at least one close, loving and secure adult is necessary.
The women I spoke to were not supported through traumatic events and did not have the care of even one adult. Homelessness was rife, with 96% of them having an experience of it that often began as abandonment.
Riley was 13 when it happened to her:
Mum sent me up to Melbourne, she just didn’t want me anymore … I cry, I cry every day.
Lisa’s mother forced her out:
… one night my mum kicked me out basically, and I went down to my best friend’s house and into the city … we both went into the city on a train and ended up staying in this squat with these old guys … So yeah, I don’t know, she got a bit sick of me being, just, um, just having a daughter, I guess.